A collection of disputed points

Polish-Russian debates on the history of the Second World War are primarily a collection of disputed points.  Any signs of a lessening of the distances between these points are small compared to the spaces between the views expressed by Poland and Germany or Poland and Ukraine. The modest common understanding that did take place in the nineties, and the ongoing dialogue of many historians does little to change the current situation:  in 2017 the Russian view of the last of the great wars looks very different to the Polish one.

 The Ribbentrop-Molotov pact map

In this text, however, I would like to focus on the beginning of the war, which is for us, and for most of the civilized world, September 1939. The differences – in both modern Russian historical policy and in the historical consciousness of the majority of Russian people – can be easily seen. For Russians the war begins only on June 22, 1941. The war in Europe dating from the fall of 1939 is noted in many scholarly papers and some textbooks, but is not official.  It does not hold the same weight as the Great Patriotic War.  And the Great Patriotic War remains today the main narrative in the nation’s memory.

The most important difference between Polish and Russian views of September 1939 seems to be what happened on September 17 and then what happened when Soviet troops entered Polish territory. In Poland there is now a consensus  that the attack by Soviet forces on Poland was an act of aggression, and most Poles remember it as the result of the German-Soviet alliance. Each critical moment  along this passage of history is in official Russian historiography described quite differently.

The problems begin with the interpretation of the German-Soviet alliance. While Russian leaders (Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev) have condemned the Soviet crimes in Katyn, the pact with Hitler has never been directly condemned.  And while in Russia today no one even denies its signing, the Russian version attempts to overshadow this by using various accusations against Poland for its own cooperation with Nazi Germany.  Sketchy on basic facts, this version has a certain appeal not least as a result of the generally rather low level of historical knowledge displayed by Russian society on this topic.

The image of Poles fighting with Germans is also full of negative stereotypes. The speed with which the Germans defeated the Poles is emphasised.  You won’t find any comments on the heroism of the Polish army or about the crimes committed at that time. The element underlined here is the fall of the Polish state.

For Russians, the key point about September 1939 – the period of Soviet aggression – is not the aggression, it is not the alliance with Germany, but rather the Russian government’s use of strategic opportunities and taking over lands, that didn’t really belong to Poland. The Red Army’s march, the myth goes, was as swift and easy as that of the Werhmacht. There is no place in it for fights with the Poles, for the battle of Grodno and the other numerous battles fought by the Poles.

With the consequences of September, the situation worsens. Poland loses the battle and it vanishes. It then only appears in the form of a debate about Katyn, on which Poles have always insisted, but even this is often overshadowed by repeated references linking Katyn to a mendacious version of the history of Soviet POWs in Poland after 1920.  There is no debate about the deportations of Polish civilians into the depths of the USSR nor of the cooperation with Hitler and the simultaneous committing of crimes against Poles. Of course there are, in return, accusations against the Poles – for collaboration, anti-Semitism and their faintheartedness in allowing Nazi Germany to occupy Poland. There is no mention of Polish armed action alongside the Western allies.

The history of Poland in the years 1939-1941 and the fate of our compatriots – under both German and Soviet occupations as well as on the warfront – forms a piece of Russian propaganda that represents permanent denial, perpetuating the myth that the Soviet Union was the main opponent of Nazi Germany and that the USSR was not at the same time attempting to enslave Europe under one or other of the two totalitarianisms.

We anticipate no change in this depiction of Poland in the near future.

Łukasz Jasina, PhD


The author is an historian and an analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs

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